The fall of the Ottoman Empire almost exactly a century ago opened up the Middle East, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula to major transformations, many of their consequences continue to resonate in the region.

Egypt was effectively independent from the Ottomans since the beginning of Khedive Ismail’s reign in the 1860s, and for all purposes it was a British protectorate since Britain had occupied the country in 1882. Interestingly, Britain did not want to turn Egypt into a colony in the way India or several African countries at the time were. For many of the administrators of the British empire at the time, Egypt was the most valuable spot on the route from Britain to East Asia, primarily because of the existence of the Suez Canal, but also because its geography and demographic distribution allowed the empire’s soldiers to rest and recuperate on the route with limited hassle. And so, when the fall of the Ottoman Empire, which Egypt was nominally under its suzerainty, ignited among many Egyptians the desire for their country’s formal independence, Britain was hardly enthusiastic, but its resistance was far from adamant. Egypt indeed got its nominal independence in 1922. The country’s first real constitution was drawn, and political parties began to appear.

This was the beginning of Egypt’s short, but real, liberal age, which lasted until the beginning of the Second World War. This liberal age, although spanning only two decades, left a deep mark on Egyptian consciousness. It is the sole period in the experience of modern Egypt in which the country experienced economic innovation, urban cosmopolitanism, social vivaciousness, true secularism, cultural openness to the world, and serious political freedom.

The fall of the Ottomans left a deeper mark in the Levant. Whereas Ottoman rule had been diluted in Egypt since the 1860s, it remained strong in the Levant until the major French advance into the region during the First World War. The Ottoman Empire’s presence in the Levant was felt not only in politics but also in the close economic and social links that connected the Levant at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century with Istanbul and the eastern reaches of the empire.

The Ottoman’s retreat from the Levant was also much more fraught than in Egypt, where it was entirely peaceful. In the Levant, the Ottoman Empire fought some of its fiercest battles, against the European colonial powers and against Arabs, mainly the Hashemites, to retain its imperial territories in the region. To a large extent, the battles in the Levant were among the last and most consequential Ottoman attempts to save the idea of an Ottoman state that extended beyond Turkey itself.

But the Ottomans failed, and with the fall of their rule in the Levant, several political projects found intellectual and geographical spaces in which to attempt to express themselves. Some of these projects emanated from religious institutions, most notably the conception of the state of Grand Lebanon, the country we now know as Lebanon, which was the brainchild of grandees of the Maronite Church. Other political projects, such as a Grand Syria extending from the Levant’s borders with Turkey all the way south to the borders with Egypt’s Sinai, emerged from ideas of secular nationalists, such as Antoun Saadeh.

The most ambitious project that came to replace the Ottomans in the Levant was that of the Hashemites. The rulers of the Hijaz for centuries, the Hashemites were expelled from the Arabian Peninsula in the 1920s by the expanding forces of King Abdelaziz al-Saud. The Hashemites successfully entrenched themselves in the Levant. They declared kingdoms in Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. And although they lost two of these kingdoms in a relatively short span of time, they managed to establish, in Jordan, a successful political project anchored on a deep bond between the Hashemites and the tribes of the region, and on a legitimacy based on the Hashemites’ descent from the Prophet Mohammad. All of these political projects – from the Maronite Church’s conception of Lebanon to the Hashemites’ kingdoms in the Levant - could only have arisen in the space created by the disappearance of the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottomans never directly ruled the heart of the Arabian Peninsula. Still the fall of their rule opened up Arabia for major changes. In the decade after the Ottomans’ withdrawal from the eastern and western fringes of the Peninsula, King Abdulaziz al-Saud significantly expanded his rule beyond Najd and united the territories he had acquired into a new kingdom we now know as Saudi Arabia.

Politics aside, the fall of the Ottomans was also traumatic for large segments across the Middle East and North Africa. Ottomanism was an identity that many in this wide region had embraced. For some it was largely religious. Despite the major modernisations that Turkey had undertaken in the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Sultan remained the caliph (the political successor of the Prophet Mohammad), and the empire was essentially the caliphate. For tens of millions of Sunni Muslims, even highly westernised ones at the beginning of the twentieth century, Ottomanism oriented hearts and minds towards the legacy of fourteen centuries of rich Islamic history. In this religious view, Ottomanism was also a distinct differentiator between the identity of the Muslim-majority societies of the empire’s heartlands versus the alien value system of the western powers that had come to the Levant, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula in the mid and late nineteenth century.

There was of course a political side to this identity. In Egypt, the then ruling Mohammed Ali dynasty was divided between a faction that was willing to accept ascending to the throne through the machinations of Britain, the effective power in the country at the beginning of the twentieth century, versus another faction that insisted on retaining a link of allegiance to the Sublime Porte, the Ottoman centre of power in Istanbul. A similar division took place in the Arabian Peninsula where infighting tribal leaders not only played the Ottoman and British against each other, but also sought different forms of legitimacy often through acquiescing to the Ottomans, and often through rebelling against them in the name of Arab independence.

Ottomanism was also a cultural frame of reference. Muslims as well as non-Muslims in the Middle Eastern and Arab provinces of the empire saw in Ottomanism an overarching umbrella covering their lands and marking its distinction from the West. This view had its exact reflection in the most widespread western literature about the Orient in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which largely lumped together all the peoples of Turkey, the Levant, and the eastern Mediterranean, with hardly any attention to differences in history, ethnicity, language, or even religion. Interestingly, for scores of western travellers, the Greeks under the Ottomans were as orientals as their fellow Levantines in the empire. This cultural Ottoman identity was particularly strong among the elites of the provinces with large Turkish communities. We see in Egypt for example, Ahmed Shawki bey (“the prince of poets”) lamenting the fall of the Ottoman Empire as not only the demise of the seat of the Islamic caliphate, but also the disappearance of “the kingship of the east”.

This series will trace how the fall of the Ottomans a century ago had led to the emergence of different ideas that attempted to replace Ottomanism in the Levant, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. Many of these political ideas borrowed from the essence of Ottomanism. Some have long withered away. But some remain at the crucible of Middle Eastern geopolitics.